Imposed deal on firefighters' pay may breach human rights law, Prescott told

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The Independent Online

Plans by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to impose a pay deal on Britain's 55,000 firefighters could breach human rights law, government lawyers say.

Plans by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to impose a pay deal on Britain's 55,000 firefighters could breach human rights law, government lawyers say.

As Mr Prescott warned that emergency cover by troops would be "significantly reduced" during any fresh strikes, Whitehall officials declared that the Fire Services Bill – which will give the Deputy Prime Minister the power to force a settlement – may breach European and international statute.

The move was approved in principle by the Commons last night, despite the second rebellion in two days by Labour MPs. Although 27 Labour backbenchers voted against it, it was given a second reading by a majority of 225.

Lawyers who advise the Government on legislation said the Bill may infringe rights to free collective bargaining enshrined in the European Social Charter and conventions drawn up by the UN's Internal Labour Organisation.

Andy Gilchrist, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary, said the Bill would place Britain in the same category as fascist dictatorships. "It is illiberal, undemocratic and signifies an appalling attitude to international law. We urge MPs and the Lords to continue to fight it line by line. They need to show they have some regard for democratic norms," he said.

But Mr Prescott is expected to argue that the Bill will not breach human rights because firefighters' work is essential and because a settlement has been impossible to reach through negotiation.

He told MPs that the number of soldiers available to crew Green Goddess fire engines during any industrial action would fall from 19,000 to 9,000.

Troops had been diverted from vital training or forced into longer tours of duty, he said. "This cannot be allowed to continue. After 10 months, firefighting duties are having a progressively detrimental affect on our troops in Iraq and our capacity to fulfil a wide range of military duties."

If FBU executives, due to meet in an emergency session next Thursday, called further stoppages, the risk to the public would be higher than during previous walkouts, Mr Prescott said. "Lives will be endangered and property ... put at risk."

He said he hoped he would not have to use powers to impose a deal, but warned that if he did so he might not stick to an offer of a 16 per cent pay rise over three years. He accused the union of playing "cat and mouse" with the Government and said the 15 days of action already taken had cost £100m.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said there was now a "finite period" for the union to accept the final offer, which would guarantee that firefighters would have a salary of £25,000 by next summer.

Kevin Barron, MP for Rother Valley, who defied the Labour whip for the first time in 20 years as an MP, said it was not the Government's job to interfere in industrial relations.

Mr Gilchrist described the plans as "deeply disturbing". He said the union rejected the idea of an imposed pay offer and the "massive cuts" that would come with it. He said he was heartened by the limited rebellion among Labour MPs, arguing that many who voted with the Government had done so with deep reluctance.